Richard North, 04/01/2017  

Oddly enough, we noticed when the appointment of Sir Ivan Rogers as our permanent representative to the EU was announced. It was then, in August 2013, that the Financial Times bigged him up as the man who was going to sort out Mr Cameron's renegotiation problems.

However, Mats Perrson, the idiot savant who was drafted in to advise Mr Cameron from Open Europe, was not impressed, telling Mrs May that she must "resist" the officials who "cut her EU options".

Apparently playing to that caricature, it was Sir Ivan who, in mid-December, was famously reported as warning that a Brexit trade deal "could take ten years". That was a perfectly reasonable observation, as he was suggesting that this was how long one might take to come into effect. But it supposedly made him a dead man walking in Whitehall, where candid appraisals of our Brexit prospects are said to be distinctly unwelcome.

A few days after his warning, Bruno Waterfield in The Times wrote about him, saying that: "When the history of Brexit and Britain's departure from the EU is written, the name of Sir Ivan Rogers will loom large".

As a former Treasury man, he was Mr Cameron's man in Brussels, tasked with negotiating a new deal for Britain. He also had the job of warning the "colleagues" that the referendum was deadly serious and that Brexit was a real possibility.

In November 2013 when he arrived in Brussels, Sir Ivan hit the ground hard trying to shake people out their complacency on the referendum to come, wrote Bruno. But half the EU did not really think that the vote would take place and the other half did not believe for a moment that Britain could vote to leave.

His first mission was to try and get treaty change but, by 2015, that prospect had dwindled, partly because most of the EU did not take the British referendum seriously. Sir Ivan, we are told, had hit a wall of complacency: the EU refused to seriously contemplate the possibility of a Brexit result (an attitude partly reinforced by a complacent Mr Cameron who thought that he could easily win it) in a failure of the political imagination that led to a poor "renegotiation" offer.

Yet, for two years, Sir Ivan, of whom it is said, he instinctively "gets" euroscepticism, had been warning again and again and again that Brexit was "perfectly imaginable" in Britain's political climate. The Brussels beltway was not listening. It was a dialogue of the deaf.

Nor indeed, Bruno wrote, did Downing Street listen to warnings from Sir Ivan that things were not going Britain's way. Seeing the writing on the wall, in 2014, he began informally and unofficially to think about Brexit, working with Tom Scholar, No 10's EU adviser, "to think the unthinkable". 

This much is said of him in private by people who know him well, that he was one of the very few people who had given very serious thought over a period of time to how Brexit could work in advantageous terms as a practical endeavour. No stranger to Flexcit, to which he constantly made reference, he became very scathing about the delusions of some Tory eurosceptics and of the blinkered slow-wittedness of the politicians he served.

By the beginning of 2016, as the contours of Mr Cameron's ill-fated new settlement between Britain and the EU had emerged, both Sir Ivan and Mr Scholar had already developed fairly advanced views on what Brexit might mean in practice.

Thus, despite Mr Cameron's injunction that there was to be no contingency planning, as Theresa May came to power, there was an embryonic plan in place, leaving Sir Ivan as the natural person to become Britain's "Mr Brexit".

Like other negotiators on both the British and EU sides, he has been dismissive of talk of "hard" or "soft" Brexit, telling London and Brussels that the real challenge is a "managed and orderly departure compared to a disorderly, chaotic exit" – straight out of the Flexcit playbook.

And now, with just weeks to go before Mrs May has to present her case in Brussels, Sir Ivan has resigned - an unexpected event which leaves Whitehall without its most senior man in Brussels and a man slated as one of the very few at high levels in the Civil Service who really understands how the EU works.

Currently, it is being said that he has been "hounded out" by hostile pro-Brexiteers, a charge which has both detractors and supporters speculating as to proximate cause of his departure. But, by all, it is acknowledged that his expertise in Brussels will be very difficult to replace at such short notice.

From the look of it, though, he has been completely misread by the Brexit zealots, who are applauding his premature departure, and calling for an end to "pessimistic mandarins".

But it is the Irish Times which is prominently suggesting that a "hard" Brexit is now more likely. And an Irish official who had regular contacts with Sir Ivan expressed a lack of surprise at his departure, saying: "He may realise what an awful job it's going to be".

It that is worrying for Ireland, it is doubly worrying for those in the UK who are looking for some rationality in the debate, more so as his departure may be taken as a signal in Brussels that Whitehall is firming up for that "hard" Brexit.

However, with his tenure due to end in November, Sir Ivan himself writes that it would make no sense to have a change-over when the negotiations had started. He says, therefore, that he has decided to step down now, "having done everything that I could in the last six months to contribute my experience, expertise and address book to get the new team at political and official level under way".

Nevertheless, in a barb that has not gone unnoticed, he writes to his former colleagues: "I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power". Senior ministers, he adds, "also need from you detailed, unvarnished - even where this is uncomfortable - and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27".

Thus does Sir Ivan appear voluntarily to have stepped away from an historical event, not even allowing for the possibility that his tenure might have been extended. But if his departure is shown to have had the fingerprints of No 10, it will give a considerable boost to David Davis, who is known to be intolerant of realistic appraisals of Brexit prospects, and makes a point of excluding critical advice.

In general, it is perceptions as much as the reality that counts. If the "colleagues" are expecting the worst and are already on the defensive, this departure will intensify their fears - however much it is said to be voluntary. With no-one on the spot to soothe their fevered brows, Mrs May can expect a rough ride when she gets to Brussels, whatever her actual intentions.

And for all that, perhaps the most worrying thing of all is the very suggestion that there are few people in high places who really understand how the EU works. If that is truly the case, and one of those people has just been forced out of office, we are in far more serious trouble than we can possibly imagine.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few